To today's Chandlers, Times is just a business

Times Staff Writer

After more than 120 years, the Chandlers are getting out of the newspaper business.

The much-celebrated and maligned family that once dominated the civic, cultural and political life of Southern California through its control of the Los Angeles Times agreed Monday to sell its entire stake in Tribune Co., the newspaper's parent.

With the core group of the family that propelled the newspaper to prominence having died or lost influence, the extended Chandler clan gradually lost its devotion to the media business. They sold the family-controlled Times Mirror Co. to Tribune in 2000. As Tribune's share price declined recently, the Chandlers' disenchantment with the media business reached a breaking point.

In the end, both defenders and detractors of one of the region's dynastic families agreed on one thing: The Chandlers acted like any other investor, seeking the maximum price for a declining asset.

"The Chandlers had a kind of public trust obligation and by failing to look out more closely for the future of the newspaper, that writes an epitaph of a family," said Robert Gottlieb, an Occidental College professor who wrote a 1977 history of The Times. "They could have burnished their reputation, but instead they took a final step that showed they were just interested in making a buck off L.A."

Alex Jones, author of two books on family-owned newspaper companies, said that the Chandlers who controlled the family's holdings in recent years did not embrace journalism as a mission, unlike the families that hold sway over other top papers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.

"The Chandler family seems to be interested mostly in maximizing its profits from a property that it seems to them could just as well have been a shoe factory," said Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

On Monday, the family issued a short statement: "We are pleased with the outcome of the special committee's process."

One elderly Chandler descendant, who asked to remain anonymous, called newspapers "a fading star," adding: "I just don't think we will ever see the old glory days like we did. There's reluctant acceptance. It's time to get out in the best way we can."

A few family members expressed a mixture of sadness, resignation and relief at news of the proposed sale.

"After 120 years of my family's ownership and leadership of the Los Angeles Times, I am deeply saddened by what appears to be the final severing of this legacy," said Harry B. Chandler, the oldest surviving son of Otis Chandler, the publisher credited with The Times' greatest triumphs. "For me, this newspaper has been more than just a company I worked at or a source of dividends.... Its pages have been the place that brought together our vast city."

The $34-a-share deal will buy out the family's 20% stake in Tribune. The pretax gain for the roughly 170 beneficiaries of the Chandler Trusts will be more than $1.6 billion. That's a healthy payday but a considerable comedown from the value of their shares just three years ago, when Tribune stock was 36% higher.

With three seats on the company's 11-member board and as the largest single holder of Tribune stock, the Chandlers instigated the sale and pushed for its conclusion. And Tribune Chief Executive Dennis J. FitzSimons was glad to oblige them.

He told associates that the family had become a far too disruptive force in the Chicago-based company's boardroom.

The family media empire was founded by Gen. Harrison Gray Otis more than 120 years ago and expanded immensely by his son-in-law, Harry Chandler.

Today, the eight branches of the family descended from Harry Chandler live under more than 20 surnames -- Kirkpatricks, Stavers, Goodans, Williamsons, Babcocks and others. Their interests and aspirations reach far beyond Southern California, although quarterly distributions from the Chandler Trusts provide a healthy supplement to their incomes.

Some family members, however, long felt that their sumptuous meal ticket came attendant with an ulcer. Their discomfort grew out of the 1960 appointment of Otis Chandler as the fourth family member to serve as publisher of The Times.

To much of the outside world, Harry Chandler's grandson made a smashing success. He transformed what had been a parochial paper operated as a virtual house organ of the Republican Party.

During a two-decade tenure ending in 1980, Otis Chandler posted correspondents around the world, hired some of the most talented journalists in the business and elevated The Times into the ranks of the nation's best papers. The Times' circulation passed 1 million.

But not all family members were happy. Otis Chandler had leapfrogged an uncle who was heir apparent to the publisher's suite. That slight was magnified by the young publisher's decision to print a five-part expose on the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society, which had ties to the same Chandler uncle.

The continuing shift of the paper's editorial policy to the middle, or slightly left of center, alienated many of Otis Chandler's more conservative relatives.

After stepping down as publisher, Otis Chandler gradually relinquished other corporate positions at Times Mirror. He left his seat on the board of the Chandler Trusts, the extended family's power center. Otis Chandler died last year, and his four surviving children had no vote in this week's deal.

Otis Chandler's long-disaffected cousins pushed their way into the power vacuum. Most telling in the shift of control was the ascension of Jeffrey Chandler.

Jeff Chandler, 65, sits on the board of the family trusts and is one of the three Chandler representatives on the Tribune board. It was his father, Philip, who had been passed over in 1960 when Otis Chandler was picked to head The Times. And it was Jeff Chandler who went public, in a 1995 magazine article, with complaints about the paper's editorial and political bent, especially its coverage of gays and AIDS.

"This is a mainstream paper, and the homosexual population is 1% to 1.5%," he told Forbes magazine. "When you start featuring these kinds of stories the way The Times does my God, you've got a campaign going on here." His sister added that the paper was "far out in left field."

Jeff Chandler now lives in San Diego County, where he is president and chief executive of Chandler Ranch Co., one of the largest avocado growers in California, according to his Tribune Co. biography.

The sale of Times Mirror to Tribune in 2000 was quietly engineered by the Chandlers outside of Otis Chandler's branch of the family.

But attempts to combine the two companies' editorial and advertising operations stumbled badly. And, as Tribune's nearly three dozen newspapers and television stations struggled to compete with Internet operations, the company's shares lost nearly half their value.

When their stake in Tribune plummeted by hundreds of millions of dollars, the family's displeasure burst into public view after the company announced a plan last year to borrow money to buy back as much as 25% of its stock.

The three Chandler directors voted against the plan and filed a letter with regulators accusing management of "strategic missteps" they called "disastrous to investors."

In June, the Chandlers called for a sale or breakup of the company, if necessary, to raise the value of their shares. But even as the auction for Tribune began, the old family rift reared its head.

Otis Chandler's son Harry wrote a column for The Times in November, calling on his relatives to pay more attention to how their actions would affect The Times.

He referred to a trio of Los Angeles magnates -- David Geffen, Eli Broad and Ron Burkle -- who had expressed interest in the paper, and hoped a "benevolent billionaire" would restore local control to the paper.

Harry Chandler, who once worked on new-business development and early Internet ventures at the paper, has more recently turned his interests in photography and writing into coffee-table books. He acknowledged in an interview that he had no clout to affect the outcome of the Tribune deal.

In a message attached to his column, he said that it "felt awful to be connected with this great newspaper for my whole life and now watch all these negative events unfold helplessly."

Such powerlessness signified a change not only in a family but in the city and region. The days had long passed when a handful of families -- mostly white and Protestant -- set the agenda for Los Angeles.

The dynasty had begun in the summer of 1882 when Civil War veteran Harrison Gray Otis joined the company that had, the year prior, begun publishing the Los Angeles Daily Times. The paper became a prominent booster of Southern California.

Otis' son-in-law, Harry Chandler, vastly expanded the reach of The Times and assembled vast acreage that would be turned into subdivisions as the city mushroomed.

Well into the 20th century, the Chandlers used their political clout to elect favored politicians. Local histories describe how one notorious journalist not only covered the Los Angeles City Council, but also had a strong hand in making sure it followed Chandler-family dictates. The paper scarcely covered Democrats who dared challenge preferred Republican candidates.

The family used The Times to campaign for the construction of an aqueduct from the Owens Valley and a deepwater port in San Pedro -- massive public works projects that helped turn Los Angeles into a boomtown.

David Halberstam, author of the 1979 book "The Powers That Be," told the Atlantic Monthly: "No single family dominates any other region of this country as the Chandlers have dominated California."

For a handful of Chandlers, The Times and other media assets brought power and some glory. Others watched somewhat happily from the sideline.

"To be honest, we are all very blessed," said Larry Staver, 50, a Chandler relative whose career as a teacher left him distant from the fights over the paper.

The success of the Chandler empire allowed him to retire early. Now he spends his days building giant model trains near his home in Portland, Ore.

"I was always very proud of the family being a part of such an outstanding newspaper," he said. "It's been a long and great run."

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james.rainey@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Historic dates

Key moments in the history of Tribune Co. and the Los Angeles Times:

June 10, 1847: The Chicago Tribune prints its first edition.

Dec. 4, 1881: The first edition of the Los Angeles Daily Times, which later drops the "Daily," is published.

1884: The Times Mirror Co., owner of The Times, is incorporated.

1910: Union extremists bomb the Times building, killing 20 employees and destroying the headquarters.

1924: Tribune launches radio station WGN (for "World's Greatest Newspaper").

1932: The Chicago Tribune wins its first of 24 Pulitzer Prizes.

1942: The Los Angeles Times wins its first of 37 Pulitzer Prizes.

1947: The Times become the largest-circulation newspaper in Los Angeles.

1948: Tribune enters the emerging television market with WGN-TV, while The Times partners with CBS to create station KTTV.

1960: Otis Chandler becomes publisher of The Times, launching the era of Times Mirror's growth into a national media company.

1980: Chandler retires as Times publisher.

1981: Tribune buys the Chicago Cubs for $20.5 million.

1983: Tribune, having grown into a media company with newspapers and TV and radio stations across the country, goes public, selling 7.7 million shares for $206 million.

1985: Tribune buys KTLA-TV in Los Angeles.

1990: The Times' circulation reaches an all-time high of 1,225,189 daily and 1,514,096 Sunday, making it the largest daily metropolitan newspaper in the country.

1995: Tribune launches its website, tribune.com.

1996: The Times launches latimes.com.

March 13, 2000: Tribune announces an agreement to acquire Times Mirror.

April 5, 2004: The Times wins five Pulitzer Prizes, the second-most ever awarded to a paper in one year.

April 13, 2004: Tribune stock reaches $51.90, its highest since buying Times Mirror.

Summer 2005: David Geffen, entertainment mogul, tells Tribune CEO Dennis J. FitzSimons he is interested in buying The Times but is rebuffed.

May 29, 2006: With its stock falling as low as $27.38, Tribune announces a plan to spend $2.4 billion to buy back shares.

June 14, 2006: The Chandler family, former Times owners and Tribune's second-largest shareholder with 12% of its stock, decry as "disastrous" strategic decisions by Tribune management and demand a breakup or sale of the company.

July 2006: Los Angeles billionaires Eli Broad and Ron Burkle separately express interest in buying The Times but are told the paper is not for sale.

Sept. 13, 2006: Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson and editor Dean Baquet publicly express opposition to staff cuts demanded by Tribune executives. Johnson is forced out in October, Baquet in November.

Sept. 21, 2006: Tribune names a committee to explore options that could include a sale of some or all of its assets.

Nov. 2006: Broad and Burkle submit a bid to buy Tribune; Geffen offers $2 billion to purchase just The Times.

Jan. 2007: The Chandler family makes a bid to buy Tribune.

Feb. 2007: Chicago real estate magnate Sam Zell emerges as a potential bidder for Tribune.

April 2, 2007: Zell buys Tribune Co. in a deal valued at $8.2 billion, or $34 a share

Source: Times research by Scott Wilson

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday April 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction Chandler family: A timeline accompanying an article in Tuesday's Section A about the founding family of the Los Angeles Times and its then-owner, Times Mirror Co., said the highest price of Tribune Co. stock since Tribune acquired Times Mirror in 2000 was $51.90 a share on April 13, 2004. Tribune's stock price peaked at $53 on Feb. 2, 2004, before the end of that day's trading session. The stock's highest daily close since the acquisition was $52.84 on Feb. 11, 2004.
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